Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sports and Superstition

I see a fair share of woo out there that claims increases in sports performance or pain relief, and in comes the endorsements from celebrity sports stars. Or at least I think they're supposed to be sports stars. I don't keep up with that sort of thing, so I don't know who's good or not. Anyway...

I'd take any endorsement for health or performance claims from sportsmen, and it may have to deal with a stereotype I have: Sportsmen are superstitious. I've read some commentary on one bit of flawed thinking that comes easily to a lot of people, and even I'm vulnerable to it at times: "The Zone" It's that place where everything clicks and you do everything right. And it's because you were wearing your lucky shirt.

Actually, no. Streaks of good performance as well as bad occur because of statistical clustering: When you're gathering data of something essentially random (and there's a lot that can influence physical skills over long periods), you can expect there to be some points where highs and lows gather, rather than a completely uniform distribution. When one of those coincides with some new behavior or object, a baseless superstition can form.

I don't know how much is exaggerated by the media, but there seems to be a lot of that mode of thought in sports, with all sorts of unusual warmup rituals, lucky charms, and taboos. I've heard about it with native American "Medicine" that would influence their combat ability, and recently with the "mana" of tribal Hawaiian warriors. This sort of thinking is pretty well ingrained in our heads: Pattern recognition is a skill that was useful in our evolution, and the costs of being overzealous with it were low enough for us to survive despite the associated flaws.

That's why we need the introspection of science and in particular, statistical mathematics. We're no longer fighting for mere survival, but for goals that require a greater precision with increasingly subtle and intricate principles. In medicine, of course, you've got one major source of that intricacy: The human body.


Dunc said...

I take it you have never seriously practised a sport then? Being "in the zone" is quite definitely a real psychological state, otherwise known as "flow". The tricks used to induce it aren't important in themselves, other than as a means to achieve a particular state of mind.

While there is an element of statistical clustering, there is also a very large element of applied psychology. If you are not in the correct state of mind, you cannot perform to your maximum ability.

Yes, there is a lot of bullshit, but let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Dark Jaguar said...

In this case the baby actually exists. It's true that the magic explanation of this or that trinket is a fairly common superstition for good performance, but it has nothing to do with the mental state of "the zone". That's got it's own massive set of woo nonsense to go with it!

In essence the times I've been in it (all video game related, like when I'm REALLY trying to slay Dracula or blow up Dr. Wily's robots, or just finally make Soda Popinski stop laughing), my mind just focuses completely on things I already know, pattern recognition of all the tricks the enemy uses and the methods I can use to avoid them all fire incredibly rapidly to the point where I don't really feel like I'm "there" until it's over and I won, or I get distracted and it's lost. It almost feels like I wrote a program to use my body as a robot to beat the game for me.

Bronze Dog said...

Guess I was a little too absolute in phrasing somewhere. Yeah, being psyched up and focused does help, but there are a lot of streaks that are just statistical clustering.